India says nationwide birth rates drop below key ‘replacement rate’

People shop at a crowded wholesale vegetable market after authorities eased coronavirus restrictions, following a drop in COVID-19 cases, in the old quarters of Delhi, India, June 23, 2021. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi/File Photo

India’s population growth is losing steam as the average number of children born crossed below a key threshold, according to newly released data from a government survey.

India’s most recent National Family Health Survey, which is conducted every five years by the Health Ministry, was released Wednesday and showed the total fertility rate (TFR) across India dropping to 2.0 in 2019-2021, compared with 2.2 in 2015-2016. A country with a TFR of 2.1, known as the replacement rate, would maintain a stable population over time; a lower TFR means the population would decrease in the absence of other factors, such as immigration.

The figures were hailed as a heartening signal by government officials and researchers in a country that is expected to overtake China to become the world’s most populous sometime this decade. Since the mid-20th century, Indian leaders have tried to curb high birthrates, which are often reversely correlated with women’s welfare metrics and economic progress. A burgeoning population is seen, in the longer term, as a hurdle to development and a driver of environmental degradation and greenhouse gas emissions.

Indian fertility rates have been trending downward for the last two decades as the country grew richer, underwent rapid urbanization, and rolled out programs that provide contraceptives and family planning education. But the progress shown in just the last two national surveys has been significant, demographers said.

“This is of course good news,” said Nandita Saikia, a professor of public health at the International Institute for Population Studies (IIPS) in Mumbai. “It indicates there has been some kind of transformation in the last four years in socioeconomic conditions.”

India’s population has been expected to overtake China’s sometime around the year 2027. That date “could be delayed if this trend continues,” Saikia added, “but not for long.”

The dropping fertility rate does not mean India’s population is already decreasing, but rather its growth rate is slowing. India’s population, which stands at just under 1.4 billion, will continue to rise beyond the year 2050 and peak at over 1.6 billion before stabilizing and returning to about 1.4 billion by 2100, according to United Nations projections.

Several Indian leaders since the country’s independence in 1947 have grappled with the population question. In the 1970s, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi carried out a controversial mass sterilization drive. Population control measures – and the difference in birthrates between India’s religious groups – remain one of the most polarizing issues in domestic politics today.

The declining fertility rate observed in recent years was backed by an uptick in several key indicators, demographers said. The proportion of women who used contraceptives rose from 54 to 67%, according to the national survey, while those who reported an unmet need for contraceptives fell. The proportion of teenage marriages has also decreased, according to the study, while there has been an improvement in the gender balance of newborns in a country with a deeply held preference for sons. For every 1,000 baby boys, there are now 929 baby girls, up from 919 girls five years ago.

In cities across India – as in other countries – women are opting for fewer children: the urban fertility rate is 1.6.

The study showed the long-standing gap between India’s north and south widening: the large, poor tracts that line the northern Ganges River continue to show high fertility rates, with women in Bihar state having an average of three children each. Southern states including Tamil Nadu and Karnataka had fertility rates below the replacement rate.

“This is not saying the country’s problems of unemployment, inequality, education, and everything else are automatically over,” said Sanjay Kumar Mohanty, the head of population policies at IIPS. “But population is no longer a top priority concern.”



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